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How Bonding With Your Pet Protects You From a Chaotic World

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

benefits of the human animal bond

Story at-a-glance -

  • The human-animal bond is defined as “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that positively influences the health and well-being of both”
  • A growing body of evidenced-based research has barely scratched the surface of the benefits of the human-animal bond
  • According to a 2016 survey, most pet owners recognize the health benefits their animal companions offer
  • The hormone oxytocin plays a vital role in the human-animal bond

The bond we share with our animal companions is simultaneously simple and complex. Love and unconditional acceptance flow effortlessly between us, but there's also a great deal going on below the surface that's not as easy to observe or understand.

The Human-Animal Bond

The term human-animal bond came into use in the 1960s when Konrad Lorenz, MD, PhD, an Austrian zoologist and ethologist, developed his principle of attachment (imprinting), which describes how bonds are formed between newborn animals and their caregivers.1

Around the same time, child psychiatrist Dr. Boris Levinson coined the term pet therapy after discovering that the presence of his dog, Jingles, helped him gain the trust of a withdrawn boy who previous therapists had been unable to reach.

"A pet is an island of sanity in what appears to be an insane world," according to Levinson. "Friendship retains its traditional values and securities in one's relationship with one's pet. Whether a dog, cat, bird, fish, turtle, or what have you, one can rely upon the fact that one's pet will always remain a faithful, intimate, non-competitive friend, regardless of the good or ill fortune life brings us."2

In the mid-1970s, the Delta Society was founded to serve as a clearinghouse for studies into animal-assisted therapy and the human-animal bond. Then came Pet Partners, which provided the first comprehensive, standardized training program in animal-assisted activities and therapy for healthcare professionals and volunteers. In 2012, the Delta Society formally changed its name to Pet Partners Therapy Animal Program. From the program's website:

"The human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that positively influences the health and well-being of both. While many of us intuitively understand the benefits of positive interactions with animals in our lives, an emerging body of research is recognizing the impact the human-animal bond can have on individual and community health."3

One Dozen Proven Benefits of the Human-Animal Bond

According to Pet Partners, the following are just a few evidence-based examples of the benefits of the human-animal bond to both pets and people:4

  1. A therapy dog has a positive effect on patients' pain level and satisfaction with their hospital stay following total joint arthroplasty.
  2. Fibromyalgia patients spending time with a therapy dog instead of in an outpatient waiting area at a pain management facility showed significant improvements in pain, mood and other measures of distress.
  3. A walking program that matched sedentary adults with therapy animals resulted in an increase in walking over a 52-week graduated intervention with the participants stating their motivation for adherence was "the dogs need us to walk them."
  4. The presence of an animal can significantly increase positive social behaviors among children with autism spectrum disorder.
  5. Children made fewer errors in match-to-sample categorization task in the presence of a dog relative to a stuffed dog or human. Similar studies may indicate presence of a dog serves as both a source of motivation and a highly salient stimulus for children, allowing them to better restrict their attention to the demands of the task.
  6. Therapy animals in pediatric cancer studies improved motivation to participate in treatment protocol, to maintain their motivation over time, and to want to "get better" or stay optimistic.
  7. Pet ownership, perhaps by providing social support, lowers blood pressure response to mental stress.
  8. Pet owners have higher one-year survival rates following heart attacks.
  9. Recognizing and nurturing the connection between animals and humans has potential implications for individual stability and health, improved economic outputs and healthcare cost savings. This conclusion was based on a number of studies.
  10. Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, may be reasonable for reduction in cardiovascular disease risk.
  11. Pet ownership was associated with a reduced risk for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and diffuse large cell lymphoma.
  12. Human health savings of $3.86 billion over 10 years have been linked to pet ownership as related to a decrease in doctor visits in studies in Austria and Germany.

Whether it's a dog who gets his owner outdoors for regular exercise, a cat who alleviates loneliness for a shut-in, a highly intelligent parrot who needs plenty of attention from his human every day, or a therapy pet who relieves her human's anxiety, animal companions have a tremendous influence on both our happiness and our health.

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Survey Shows a Majority of Pet Parents Recognize the Benefits of the Human-Animal Bond

In 2016, the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) sponsored an online survey of 2,000 pet owners to learn more about how their knowledge of the health benefits of the human-animal bond impacts pet care and welfare. Some key findings from the survey:5

Up to 88% of pet owners are aware that pets reduce stress, depression, and anxiety, increase our sense of wellbeing, and help with conditions like PTSD in military veterans

Up to 68% are aware that pets support health aging, help with conditions like autism and Alzheimer's disease, and improve heart health

Up to 47% of pet owners are aware that pets support child cognitive development and reading skills and classroom learning, and help prevent childhood allergies

Up to 75% reported mental health improvements from pet ownership in themselves or friends or family members

Up to 55% reported physical health improvements from pet ownership in themselves or friends or family members

98% of pet owners agree that their pet is an important part of their family

95% could not imagine giving up their pet for any reason

The 'Hug Hormone' Oxytocin Plays a Key Role in the Human-Animal Bond

Research on the human-animal bond indicates there is genuine chemistry between dogs and their humans. Daily interactions with your canine companion have a measurably positive effect on your biochemistry, thanks to the hormone oxytocin.

Oxytocin goes by a number of nicknames, including the "hug hormone," the "cuddle hormone," the "love chemical," and the "morale molecule." Oxytocin is what makes skin-to-skin contact feel good; it's what makes a great meal so satisfying. This amazing hormone can also act as a natural painkiller and can lower stress levels and blood pressure.

It's a well-known fact that human-to-human contact, for example, bonding with children or partners, triggers the release of oxytocin. But studies also reveal that bonding with a completely different species also promotes release of the "love chemical."

A 2009 study of 55 dogs and their owners showed that the people whose dogs gazed at them for two minutes or longer showed higher levels of oxytocin than owners whose dogs gazed at them for less time.6 A 2011 study found that owners who kissed their dogs frequently had higher levels of oxytocin than other owners.7

And in a study published in 2003, dog owners were put in a room and asked to sit on a rug on the floor with their dogs.8 For a half hour, the owners focused all their attention on their dogs, talking softly to them, and stroking, scratching and petting them. The owners' blood was drawn at the beginning and again at the end of the 30-minute session.

The researchers found that the dog owners' blood pressure decreased, and they showed elevated levels not only of oxytocin, but also several other hormones. These included beta-endorphins, which are associated with both pain relief and euphoria; prolactin, which promotes bonding between parent and child; phenylethylamine, which is increased in people involved in romantic relationships; and dopamine, which heightens feelings of pleasure.

Incredibly, all the same hormones were also elevated in the dogs, which suggests that the feelings of attachment are mutual. These studies and others are really just the tip of the iceberg. Understanding the mechanisms of the relationship between humans and animals, and their implications for all species, will keep researchers occupied well into the future.

In the meantime, if you're a pet parent and need a little boost — or if your animal seems to — try engaging her in a long, loving gaze, or as Jackson Galaxy says, the I love you blink. If she's the shy type, give her your undivided, loving attention for a half hour. You'll both feel healthier and happier for it!